There was no-where I could hide. I couldn’t walk down the street without bumping into this or that brother or sister or child from my school or acquaintance from the mosque. At Islamia School I found it harder and harder to carry on being “Teacher Hassan” the role model others looked up to and I started staying in my classroom at break times to avoiding having to see anyone. But making the decision to leave Islamia School was a very difficult one. It had been a huge part of my life, the children were like my own children and my colleagues were my friends. It was hard to walk away from the life and social circle I had known for so many years. I was also concerned about the effect of taking my children out of the environment they had grown up in and felt secure in. But as long as I remained at the school I knew I couldn’t move on. I had to take stock of who I was and where I was. I needed space. I wanted to change everything and make a fresh start, get away from religion and get away from the expectations that surrounded me. I handed in my resignation and left Islamia School in April 2006.
After a few months I knew I had made the right decision and I began to feel more relaxed and confident within myself. The greatest relief was that I didn’t have to live a double life of publicly expressing beliefs that I privately no longer believed. I was finally free to be myself, though I wasn’t sure who that was. There were plenty of things on offer. If I didn’t like Islam, how about becoming a Christian? Or maybe a Hindu or Buddhist? Would I like to be an Atheist or an Agnostic? How about some sort of New Age philosophy? Society seems to hate people it can’t label, but after such a long and difficult process of trying to cast off one label, I was determined not to fall for another. The house I moved to was in a very bland Oxfordshire town. I liked it because of its blandness. The 1970s three-bed semis all looked the same with their manicured lawns, regimented rows of tulips saluting you and gleaming silver Ford Mondeos in the drive ways. The man who walked his dog at 9am, like clockwork, always smiled and said “Morning!” as he passed by with his copy of the Guardian tucked under his arm. No one knew me; I felt invisible; and that’s what I wanted to be – invisible. As I was now a single parent of 4 children I took a part-time job as an online teaching mentor as well as delivering eggs for my brother’s farm.
Apart from some discussions with my two brothers – I hadn’t spoken to the rest of my family yet about what I believed. They all thought I was still a Muslim. I always said the usual things like Assalamu-Alaykum, Al-Hamdulilah, Insha’ Allah and occasionally joined in prayers with family. They knew I had many doubts and some ‘strange’ ideas, but I had never said I wasn’t a Muslim anymore. It was something that I hadn’t even admitted to myself yet. Then one day in early 2007 I received a text from my eldest sister Kamelia. It read:
How u doing? I heard startlingly that u r becoming an apostate! Maybe u should try 2 get hold of american writer – jeffry lang’s ‘help i’m losing my religion’ love xx
Seeing the word apostate made my heart skip a beat. I put the phone quickly back in my pocket. I told myself that I shouldn’t reply as it would only upset Kamelia if I was to confirm that I was an apostate. But the truth was I still couldn’t admit it to myself. Apostates are considered the lowest form of life by Muslims. They have wilfully turned away from Islam after having being guided to the truth. They have abandoned God and sold their souls to Satan. I remember reading what one Muslim had said on a discussion board about the Somali apostate Ayaan Hirs Ali:
“Allah says these people will receive humiliation in this life, and a worse humiliation and torment in the next life! But the best part is, we can rest assured that this walking piece of FILTH will burn in Hell forever and ever! Usually the idea of Hellfire is too much to want on anyone, but filthy apostates deserve nothing else! Allah’s justice will prevail, in this life and ESPECIALLY in the next life where fools and dogs like this filthy woman will eternally regret what they did, and will wish they didn’t make such a grave mistake!”
Now, here I was having to admit to my sister that I was myself an apostate – a Murtadd – that most vile and despised of creatures. But I didn’t want to go on pretending, to others, or to myself, anymore. I took the phone out of my pocket and wrote:
“I have lost my faith in religion, but not in God.”
I chose my words carefully so as to not lie and yet reassure Kamelia that I wasn’t a completely lost cause. I knew Kamelia would rationalise that my doubts about religion were just disillusionment with Muslims – something I had talked about many times in the past. But from that moment on I realised that I wasn’t a Muslim any longer. I finally consciously recognised what I subconsciously had known for some time.
The days and weeks seemed to flow by quickly as I slipped into the routines of taking the kids to school, getting them home, cooking, cleaning and doing my online teaching and deliveries. Routines are an invaluable coping tool. They distract us from morbid thoughts and from the silliness of the world. Most importantly, routines are natural; they make you feel normal. The world around me was still full of confusion and conflict, but I could feel a subtle change deep within me. I felt more positive and at ease with myself. My fears and insecurities weren’t completely gone though.
There was still one question that troubled me – the question of morality. Muslims take for granted that there are moral absolutes, unchanging standards of good and evil, taught to us by God. They provide us with the framework by which to live our lives as good and decent human beings. Without absolute moral standards Muslims believe that man will become corrupt and sinful, drowning in a sea of moral relativism where ‘anything goes’. Now that I rejected Islam I no longer believed that the morality it presented was divinely ordained. I had lost my yardstick for what was right and wrong and felt a sense of moral confusion. In reality I was still the same person I had always been and behaved in the same way. But the thought, that without strict moral boundaries I might be slowly corrupted, frightened me. I thought about how the sheikhs and Imams in the mosques had warned about the dire consequences of abandoning God’s law and how they had constantly cited examples of immorality in the decadent, secular West as proof. Even in those days I was always aware of the way they exaggerated the truth. I remember one Sheikh saying that “Women walk naked in the streets and couples openly have sex in the parks.” I was also aware of their double standards; they had no problem quoting criminal cases that were not typical of Western behaviour, such as paedophilia, rape, or serial killings as proof of the evil morality of the West, yet protested with a great deal of righteous indignation, if anyone dared to quote criminal cases that were not typical of Muslim behaviour such as examples honour killings, wife beaters or terrorists. I also knew through Rachida’s work with Muslim women’s groups that paedophiles, rapists and many other types of deviants did exist in Muslim societies but were often brushed under the carpet by families under pressure to preserve their honour. But perhaps most crucially, the Qur’an itself presents very dubious standards of morality in verses that sanction slavery, taking concubines, hitting wives or torturing unbelievers in the most savage manner for all eternity. But if I no longer took my morality from Islam, where would I get it? How do I know what is right and wrong? Are there absolute standards? Or is everything relative?
I was sitting in KFC in Oxford town centre one day when I noticed a smiling Buddhist Monk on the other side of the street. He was standing at the foot of the old Saxon tower of St Michael’s Church, begging for money. The crowds that flowed up and down Cornmarket Street seemed oblivious to his presence. Groups of Italian or Japanese tourists leaned their faces in together in front of the camera, big grins and waving arms, with the old church and its little monk nothing more than a curious backdrop to an Academy-Award winning snapshot of amazing people. I decided to go across and see the monk at the foot of the tower. He was only a few steps away, but crossing Cornmarket Street through crowds of pedestrians proved difficult. It seemed everyone was either blind or were bumping into me on purpose. I began to wonder whether both the Monk and I were invisible or had fallen into a parallel universe. When I finally reached the other side the Monk, who had been watching me all the way, held out his little tin and smiled. I took out a couple of pounds and dropped them in.
“Buddhists don’t believe in God, do they?” I said.
“Buddhism is about reaching a state of enlightenment. Understanding that reality is not what it appears to be.”
“But if you don’t believe in God, and don’t believe God tells us what is right and what is wrong, then where does morality come from?”
“I think you know.” He smiled. It sounded very wise and final. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t know, but thought it would be rude to spoil the moment. Perhaps this was one of the “Seven AHAs of the enlightened soul!”
I’ve never been a big fan of Buddhism. I have come across quite a few pretentious Western converts who managed to make it seem like a trendy and self-absorbed pastime. There is also all this nonsense about people being born with disabilities because they were bad in a previous life. It seems to me that this monk should know better than to believe such things. Despite that, I realised he had a point. I do know. I may not be able to define or explain it, but I have always had inner moral compass and I still had it – despite my loss of faith in religion. In fact it could be said that it was my moral compass that led me to reject religion.
Muslims constantly mock the idea that man can come up with moral standards by himself and point to what they see as the moral malaise of human society when left to its own devices; the constant shifting of the moral goal posts to suit current trends. I had always accepted this argument in the past, but now I doubted it. If Muslims have absolute standards of morality, then they should agree about what’s right and wrong. But they don’t. Muslims differ a great deal about many moral issues and some can’t even agree on major ones. Secondly, although human beings, left to their own devices, may not agree on everything, there is a great deal of agreement on a vast number of issues and most people don’t need the ten commandments to tell them that one shouldn’t murder, steal or commit adultery. If anything, religion can prevent people from acting in a moral way. It is also no coincidence that only in recent times, when religion has been largely ignored, have we had such broad agreement on moral standards such as those set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which some fundamentalists still object to, arguing it contradicts Islamic Law.
Maybe it is easier and more comfortable to think that we have been given an external guide to what is right and wrong. But that seems to defeat the whole object of our existence as self-aware beings. To struggle with questions of good and evil, it seems to be precisely why we have such an ability; it’s what makes us human.
The irony is that it is man’s struggle for truth and understanding that has led to religions in the first place. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to tell others of one’s experiences, teach them the wisdom one has learned or cast in stone the answers one has discovered. Of course there is nothing wrong with learning from the great minds of the past, and it would be foolish, not to say arrogant, to think that one can ignore centuries of human wisdom – whether they claimed divine inspiration or not. The grave mistake is to forget that words are merely symbols used to point to experiences that can never be fully conveyed within the limits of human language. In the case of spiritual experiences related in ‘Holy Books’, we are talking about something that is outside another persons own experience and thus beyond the concepts they have come to attach to words. As Rumi is reported to have once said, “Now that I’m in love I disown all that I wrote about it in the past”. Any words that attempt to describe such things should never be taken literally and must be constantly challenged in the light of our own evolving experiences & understanding.
Life is often a twisting and at times very painful road. I never imagined when I started out on that road that I would be at the place I am now, so I cannot presume to know where I will be in the future. But I do know that I don’t believe in Islam anymore. I don’t believe the Qur’an is the literal and infallible word of God. Nor do I believe in the Bible or any other book that claims Divine authorship. It’s clear to me that the author of these books are men. Men whose source of inspiration was not a Divine Being, but themselves and the context and time they lived in. For me the magic of Islam has vanished. It’s light, dim and it’s pearls, fakes. Like Pandora I glimpsed inside the locked chest and the magic of Islam escaped. I cannot put it back.